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Identical Languages

February 28, 2011

I used to scoff at the notion that one’s language is an integral part of one’s identity. In my mind, language was just an interface against the world, a communications module that could be replaced without sentimentality.

To a degree I still feel that way, but only on a large scale; I see no problem with languages going extinct or merging so that only one global language remains in use. If a language is no longer spoken, there is no practical reason to preserve it in living form. (To record it before the last speaker dies can have its academic uses of course.)

But on a personal level I’ve begun to feel more and more attached to my native tongue. When I was younger, I felt confident in learning a new language to a degree where I was fluent in it. As time passed, and my hubris waned, I realized that I could never become truly fluent in anything but my first language.

I cannot escape the fact that I was born and raised in a monolinguistic fashion. Sure, English was all around me, but it wasn’t really until I started watching low-quality, high-fun TV shows after school that I really started to take it in. The little town library had a meager selection of Swedish books, let alone anything foreign. What foreign books I read, I read in translated form.

We did start English classes in 4th grade (think they start in 2nd grade nowadays – not that it helps much) but most of my English knowledge I’ve gotten from pop culture. My belief that school has but the slightest to do with learning is fuelled by the fact that I started to read German in 6th grade and continued throughout my school years, but am miles and miles behind English, proficiency-wise.

So I’m not a “true” bilingual and never will be.

There are theories saying that the language we speak influences the way we think. It’s such an intriguing thought that I’ll probably expand on that in a future rambling. Anyway, if this is true (and many things suggest it is), then surely our identity is affected as well?

It sure seems that way, when you hear people lament the “loss” of language coming to a foreign country sometimes incurs. Surrounded by people who can’t speak your language, you are no longer speaking another language by choice but by necessity. Since I’ve never had to experience such a forced transition, I still wonder if not the shifting of one’s cultural paradigm has more to do with it.

But trusting in what people with experience say, it is important for one’s sense of self to speak one’s first language.

This all makes me wonder.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

said Oscar Wilde, quote factory extraordinaire.

If what he said is true, could it be that people can lie more easily in a foreign language? My intuition told me that it probably is so. Some weaksauce google fu later, it seemed less clear. It seems that people attach a greater emotional weight to statements they hear in L1 (the excursion also gave me some new pieces of terminology, which I am embracing with vigor and no doubt subtle misunderstanding).

But when it comes to lying, it starts to depend. On the one hand, people prefer to lie in L1 if it is both their most emotional and their most proficient language. On the other hand, if proficiency is equal, people prefer their least emotional language for lying in, which makes sense in a way. We tend to assume that controlling one’s emotions is key to successfully lying.

Either way, it seems our sense of identity is closely related to our language. Also, Oscar Wilde is a genius.


From → General

One Comment
  1. hails permalink

    As a person that speaks 3 languages (2 of them fluently) and learning my 4th (modesty? what’s that?), I think I can provide some valuable insight.

    A few years ago I moved to Belgium (Wallonia) and went to a Belgian high school without knowing the slightest hint of French. It was quite the shock, both culturally and because of the language. Of course at first I didn’t dare open my mouth to say anything, and if I did it would be in English. However French people are uptight about their language and even if they understood me they would never reply in English, always in French.

    Even after I learned a bit of French, I still didn’t dare talk to people because I was both shy and embarrassed of what kind of nonsense I might spew out. It took me a solid couple of years before I finally had the courage to talk to people. Even today I feel slightly self-conscious whenever I speak French, and I write “Non-native speaker” on all my exam papers. Personally, I feel I can never really be myself when speaking French. There’s just bits and little quirks of my personality that I have yet to find out how to express.

    English and Romanian, it’s another story entirely. I grew up speaking both and I can confidently say I am truly bilingual. Romanian is my native language, but pity me against a native English speaker and I guarantee I’ll do at least as good as him on all levels. In fact, I dare say my English is even better than my Romanian.

    If my uni psychology teacher is to be believed, there is only one way to ever be truly bi/tri/multilingual. There is a critical period in a child’s life (3-8 years old or something) when they learn the basis of their language. If they are sufficiently exposed to more than one language, they will learn both and later on will be able to speak both perfectly, like a native speaker. Later on, you can of course learn more languages, but you will never be truly bilingual, at least not as good as a native speaker would be. I can vouch for this theory myself; even if I live the rest of my life speaking French, I don’t think I could ever speak like a native.

    As for how language is a part of one’s identity, I tend to believe that it depends on the individual. Someone who has only ever spoken one language their entire life (barring language classes in school) will certainly feel a lot more tired to it. A polyglot will not. Lots of little personality quirks can be expressed through language, most of them involuntarily. If the individual is sufficiently proficient in another language they will be able to express them. That’s why I think it’s easier to lie in a foreign language. If people notice anything weird about what you just said, they’ll just chalk it off to you not understanding. At least that’s how I got away with lying about not doing my homework.

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